Whoever is lucky enough to be education secretary under the new prime minister is going to have to perform a tricky balancing act.
The B word will dominate everything about the (effectively) new government. And if that doesn’t work, we may be talking a lot about the E word.
It’s possible that the new inhabitants of the 7th floor [where the ministers reside at the Department for Education’s Sanctuary Buildings office] won’t have long to make their mark.
But putting that to one side, what should they focus on?
The last three inhabitants of Sanctuary Buildings all recognised that, given the massive reforms since 2010, lots of things need to be left alone to bed down.
Government for better or worse is something that needs forward momentum
But it would be a mistake to simply see the job as one of ticking along. Government for better or worse is something that needs forward momentum; to ensure that policies go in the right direction when they move towards implementation and don’t drift.
It’s going to take more than hubs to achieve the kind of transformative outcomes for kids that everyone wants.
And of course, the Conservative leadership contest saw a bidding war break out between candidates as to who would put the most extra money into schools (and possibly FE). As a result, the education secretary is going to have more money to play with.
This is a double edged sword. On the one hand, money could make their job easier and address some of the undeniable issues in the system.
On the other hand, there’s lots of bad ideas floating around looking for a benefactor. The massive injection of cash into the system under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown didn’t improve things in the way that it could have done because so much of it was wasted on gimmicky initiatives that made zero difference to kids.
Lots of people and organisations are licking their lips in anticipation of the spending taps being turned on. The new edu sec must therefore resist the easy option of just spraying money on things that sound interesting or are loudly lobbied for, and learn lessons from the mistakes made by Labour.
First of all, they must properly understand the scale of the reforms since 2010, and the research that informed them and made them so effective.
Coming out of this, secondly, they must have a very clear idea as to what their top priorities are, and focus their efforts (and extra money) on these.
It is the only way to shape the department to their will, keep the usual suspects at bay, and enable effective and efficient policies to be enacted.
The question of who should fund and provide services traditionally done by local authorities needs to be addressed
And thirdly, they must remember that they are the department for parents and for pupils, not just for teachers and the sector. Politically, given how education has been rising up the public’s agenda in recent years, government needs to enact reform that speaks to both of these groups.
What then should these priority areas be?
We’re clear that the size and allocation of the SEND high-needs block, range and quality of alternative provision, early years provision, and skills and higher education have got to be in there.
Teacher pay should be addressed but on a sensible way, given the costs of it.
The question of who should fund and provide services traditionally done by local authorities needs to be looked at.
There’s also the matter of finishing off key structural reforms such as academisation and the national funding formula.
Next month, Parents and Teachers for Excellence will be publishing thoughts on these and other areas from a number of sector experts.
We hope that it will help whoever finds themselves overseeing education get up-to-speed with things quicker, so they can shape the agenda before it is shaped for them.
These are interesting times for everyone working with young people. The question of Brexit – it’s delivery and aftermath – could give the sector the time, space, and resources it needs to get on with the job with less political interference than usual from No. 10.
We mustn’t waste the opportunity this presents.
Mark Lehain is director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence. Jonathan Simons is director of education at Public First and a member of the PTE advisory council.